What a Dowager Countess of Grantham Would Have Really Said: A Linguistic Insight into Period Drama

By Ilc, Gasper | British and American Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

What a Dowager Countess of Grantham Would Have Really Said: A Linguistic Insight into Period Drama


Ilc, Gasper, British and American Studies


1. Introduction

The last decades have seen a great revival of British period dramas which portray the golden age of the British Empire, the very core of Britishness as it seems. These TV productions offer spectators an escape of sorts from their quotidian lives, which also explains their popularity. The present paper claims that these productions may appear to represent historical periods authentically, but in reality they correspond to Baudrillard's (1994) concept of simulacra of simulation. To support this claim, the paper first addresses the system of simulation and simulacra as developed by Baudrillard (1994). From this theoretical frame, the discussion moves to the linguistic analysis of the popular TV period drama series Downton Abbey, season 1 (2010), henceforth DA. By using three different linguistic and culturomic tools - the Flesch Readability Tests, Compleat Lexical Tutor, and Google Ngram Viewer - the paper analyses the script of the first three episodes of DA and shows that the authenticity of the period drama in question is dubious, at least language-wise.

2. Basic theoretical tenets: simulation, simulacra and the hyperreal

In his seminal work Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard (1994:3 et passim) claims that in postmodern society, the traditional divide between the real and the imaginary is no longer clearly noticeable. What our contemporary consciousness perceives as real is, in fact, hyperreal. We live in a system that is itself a "gigantic simulacrum", a simulacrum that is constructed by media-generated information. Modem media simulate and create the real in such a way that there is no distinguishable difference between real/imaginary and true/false. In Baudrillard's (1994:81) system of simulacra, the type of simulacrum that no longer dissociates the real and the imaginary is known as the third order simulacrum. It is typically produced in a hyperspace by means of combining various miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks into larger models of the hyperreal. These building blocks of the hyperreal are signs/symbols that seem to be real objects, but in truth they are copies without the referent, bits of information yet to be confirmed in hyperreality.

Since the focus of the present paper is the analysis of a TV production, let us illustrate this by briefly examining a popular cinematographic production, The Hunger Games (2012), henceforth the HG. From a traditional, i.e. pre-postmodem perspective, the story of the HG is understood as science fiction: a futuristic, imaginary world with imaginary events, dissociated from the real world. The prepostmodem consciousness perceives the HG as the first order simulacrum (cf. Baudrillard 1994:81). However, since the postmodern consciousness no longer separates the real from the imaginary, it understands the story of the HG in terms of the third order simulacrum: it is a simulacrum of a simulation, a cybernetic game in a hyperspace. As Potts (2013) points out, the HG is a "pure simulation of what we have lost in our telematic screenal existence [...]. A simulacrum of nature and the real, of material scarcity, and of pre-Leviathan Hobbesian survivalism." This can perhaps be best observed in Katniss and Gale's attempts to forage the woods in order to feed the starving inhabitants of District 12. This example, however, is not the only case in which the HG model of simulation draws on the elements from the memory bank of the Western world. Additional examples include: the 13 Districts (cf. 13 British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America), the Capitol (cf. the central seat of power, be it Roman or American), the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts (cf. First vs. Third world countries), and the concept Hunger Games itself (cf. Reality Television, Olympic Games).

The question may arise at this point why these historical allusions, quasihistorical references, play such an important role in modem simulations. A possible answer may again be found in Baudrillard (1994:7-10), who argues that postmodern society is obsessed by the need to produce and reproduce history. …

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